Dusting off the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archives

Photo by Felix Dong

Sheila Tran
Senior Copy Editor

A familiar place for most UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) students, the UCSB Library is typically associated with old textbooks and all-nighters. What many students may be unaware of, however, is that the library is home to some of the oldest audio recordings known to mankind.

Tucked away on the third floor mountain side of the library is the Cylinder Audio Archive, a carefully curated collection of over 19,000 historic phonograph cylinders. Invented by Thomas Edison in the late 1800s — long before CDs, cassette tapes, and vinyl records — phonograph cylinders are the earliest commercial recording medium. These hollow cylindrical objects are roughly the size of a soda can and function similarly to vinyl records, with audio engraved as grooves that can be played by a needle.

The archive offers a unique look into a little-documented era of American culture and history, with a wide variety of genres and types of recordings that trace back as early as the 1890s. The sounds, which are all available online, range from music genres such as fiddle tunes and Hawaiian music to historical speeches and sermons. Unique to the archive is its collection of commercial home recordings made by regular people, which showcase the everyday experiences of life during the 19th century. 

“I believe the inherent need to preserve history,” said David Seubert in an interview with The Bottom Line. Seubert is the curator of the library’s performing arts collection. 

The age and rudimentary nature of cylinders means that the role of the archive is becoming increasingly important. Most cylinders are extremely fragile and can only be played a number of times before they break. Coupled with their make-up of tinfoil, wax, or plastic and the common perception that they were merely novelty items at the time of their invention, few survive in good condition today.

More than simply as a form of remembrance, however, Seubert believes that preserving history is an important step in learning from the past. A simple sound recording can suggest a lot about the time period it originates from — for example, the archive also preserves recordings that today would be considered racist, such as minstrel show performances. Minstrel shows, popular in the early 19th century, were comedic depictions of African-American racial stereotypes by white actors in blackface. 

“I think that not preserving things can lead to us forgetting injustices of the past,” said Seubert of the archive’s role in educating future generations. 

The archive’s beginnings trace back the 1990s from an initiative by former university librarian Joseph Boissé to build a collection of early sound recordings. Following a large donation of wax cylinders — the largest in the country at the time — a pilot project was launched in 2002 to digitize and make the recordings available to the public. 

Over the past 15 years, the archive has grown to become the largest online collection of downloadable historical sound recordings and has even received recognition from the U.S. Library of Congress.

Today, the archive is manned by four individuals and additional student employees who continue to work to digitize and archive the cylinders. The cylinders are then stored in custom-made cabinets in the special collections vaults, which span three temperature-controlled floors of the library. According to Seubert, the archive currently receives donations of around 20 collections a year from all over the country as well as globally.

While the cylinder archives tell an important story about the history of life in America, Seubert also recognizes the importance of diversity in archival work. The collection is currently dominated by European and North American recordings — reflecting the fact that the sound recording industry at the time was primarily based in those two countries — but Seubert shares that the staff take extra care to collect historical records from different ethnic groups and countries.

“My goal as a librarian and archivist is for the collections to reflect where California is going,” said Seubert, “not where America was.”